Isabella McLennan & McLennan Travelling Libraries

This is an excerpt from the article entitled “Isabella Christine McLennan” written by Rosemary Turpin. It was first published in Fontanus, Women in the University Issue, Vol 8 (1995).

A framed portrait of Miss Isabella Christine McLennan in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, McLennan Library Building. Photo: Ed Bilodeau.

A framed portrait of Miss Isabella Christine McLennan in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, McLennan Library Building. Portrait from the Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum. Photo: Ed Bilodeau

Isabella Christine McLennan, who, in spite of the fact that she never attended McGill, was a most generous benefactor. She was born in 1870, the youngest of thirteen children of the highly successful industrialist, Hugh McLennan. Although she never married or chose a career, she managed her inheritances so well that she was able to will McGill University about one million dollars, enough to build the new McLennan Library, which was named after her at its inauguration in 1969.

She died in 1960, at the age of eighty-nine, after a fairly quiet life which focused largely on her family and philanthropic pursuits which included the McLennan Travelling Libraries, and McGill University, where she set up several scholarships. Others included the Montreal General Hospital, the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Royal Victoria College, all affiliated with McGill.

McLennan Travelling Libraries

Isabella’s father, Hugh McLennan, started the McLennan Travelling Libraries in 1899, and this was to remain a chief interest of hers for over fifty years after his death. They were first conceived by former McGill Librarian, Charles Gould, a great friend of her father’s.[1]

Under this library system, boxes of about thirty varied books were shipped all over Canada to places where no libraries and few books of any kind existed. In these remote areas, books were seized eagerly by many of the residents, and passed from one to the other until most people had read all they had wanted to, then they were shipped back, to be replaced by a new selection.


The Travelling Libraries operated initially in rural Quebec, but in McGill University, vol. 11, Dr. Stanley Frost says,

… The service proved so popular that it soon went far beyond provincial boundaries. In the Yukon, Dawson City was supplied by rail; in Newfoundland, Battle Harbour by rail and sea; northern Ontario, the Gaspé Peninsula, and the area north of Ottawa were regular beneficiaries. A local church, a Woman’s Institute, a rural school, were typical recipients of the boxes.. . From the Magdalen Islands to the far west, the travelling library service reflected McGill’s sense of responsibility for all of Canada, and of its role as a national institution. [2]

On January 11, 1911, Isabella, her brothers John, Francis and Bart, her sister Alice, her niece Alice and her nephew William Durie McLennan met with Governor John Fleet of Nova Scotia and Notary Public John Fair of Montreal, to establish the Hugh McLennan Fund for the McLennan Travelling Libraries. The McLennans donated capital stock shares and cash to a value of $20,000, given “unto the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning.” [3]

The Travelling Libraries were first supported by the McLennan family and administered by McGill University, and later supported to a large extent by Isabella herself. She funded the McLennan Travelling Libraries on a semi-annual basis and occasionally by special request. This included paying the salary of its first Director, Miss Elizabeth G. Hall, which was then $480.00 per year.[4]

The Travelling Libraries were run almost exclusively by women. Elizabeth G. Hall ran it from 1901 to 1936; Miss Dorothy Bizzey until 1940; Adele de G. Languedoc from 1940 to 1945; Frances Maunsell in 1952 and Kathleen Clynes from 1954 to 1969.[5]

In May 1933, Isabella wrote to Dr. Lomer that she and her brothers would have to reduce expenditures on the Libraries, curtailing work with the schools. [6]

She gave the Travelling Libraries $5,000 for its first Bookmobile in 1950 and paid over $1,600 to have it fixed after it was in an accident in 1952. She donated $7,500 for another Bookmobile in 1956.[7] Throughout almost two-thirds of her life, she kept the Travelling Libraries running almost single-handedly through her donations.

The outreach libraries were able to continue, with contributions from the Quebec government until about 1976, but in 1978, the functions of the Libraries were absorbed by the programme of the Bibliothèque centrale de l’Éstrie. They inherited the books and the historical material was left with the McGill Archives.[8]


GIFs created from the video “The Meaning of a University” created by the Board of Governors of McGill University, 1952. This footage is held at the McGill University Archives and will be available soon via McGill Library’s YouTube page.

[1] Hall, Elizabeth G., The McGill Travelling Libraries, The McGill News, June 1925, p. 19.

[2] Frost, Stanley Brice, McGill University for the Advancement of Learning, Vol 111, 1985-1971, p. 73 and Note 29 for that chapter.

[3] McGill Archives, McLennan Travelling Libraries Microfilm, film MF-1652, reel 2, passim.

[4] McGill Archives, Letter from Isabella McLennan to Dr. G.R. Lomer dated May 29th, 1933 in Record Group 4, Container No. 248, file 4004, “H. McLennan, Travelling Libraries.”

[5] Letter in McGill News “Letters,” Vol. 48, no. 2, May 1967, p. 2, and McLennan Travelling Library records, passim, and McGill University Archives, Microfilm MIF 1652, reel 1.

[6] McGill Archives, Letter from Isabella McLennan to Dr. G.R. Lomer dated May 29th, 1933 in Record Group 4, Container No. 0248, file 4004, “H. McLennan, Travelling Libraries.”

[7] McGill Archives, Record Group 40, Container 2063C, File 522-2 and Record Group 4, Container 0248, file 4004.

[8] Letter from Normand Bernier, recteur général, Bibliothèque centrale de prêt de l’Éstrie, Inc. to R. Turpin dated November 21st, 1994.



2 Comments on “Isabella McLennan & McLennan Travelling Libraries

  1. I am probably inadvertently revealing my age, but I have such fond memories of the McLennan Travelling Library coming to our school! I couldn’t wait to borrow books.

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